Mali: At Risk of Becoming an Islamic State

John Price (Ambassador to Mauritius, Seychelles and Comoros, 2002-2005)

Cross-posted from the December 20, 2012 blog post by Ambassador John Price

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On December 11, 2012, Prime Minister Cheick Modibo Diarra was removed from office by Mali’s military. This comes on the heels of the March ousting of President Amadou Toure, by a junta led by Captain Amadou Sanogo. Mali’s destabilization is the result of the Arab Spring that led to the conflict in Libya–where regime change was the goal–without an endgame plan. Large caches of weapons were left unprotected, which reached radical Islamists in northern Mali.

 On December 11, 2012 the Foreign Policy article, Rice: French plan for Mali intervention is ‘crap’, noted, “The crisis in Mali underscores the rising threat…Islamic militancy in North Africa and the Sahel [is] the clearest evidence of blowback from the U.S.-backed military campaign that toppled Qaddafi”. The article also noted that France wanted swift military action in Mali, “with a rapid deployment of an African stabilization force”.

Reuters reported that Prime Minister Diarra had urged the UN, “to act to end the suffering of the people of Mali and to prevent a similar situation that would be even more complicated in the Sahel and the rest of the world”. Niger’s Foreign Minister Mohammed Bazoum stated, “Only an armed intervention supported by friendly powers could eradicate insecurity in the region.” Youssoufou Bamba the Côte d’ Ivoire representative to the U N warned, “The clock is ticking and every day that passes brings more suffering to the population trapped in the areas controlled by the terrorists”.

Secretary Hillary Clinton has stated, “Only a democratically elected government will have the legitimacy to achieve a negotiated political settlement in northern Mali, end the rebellion and restore the rule of law”. To which French President Hollande retorted, “How can we organize elections when northern Mali is occupied by terrorist movements that don’t apply democracy”. He firmly stated, “Mali’s territorial integrity should be restored as soon as possible and that any lost time would only complicate matters”. France continues to press the UN to give the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) the authority for military intervention in northern Mali.

The UN Resolutions 2056 and 2071 were intended to deal with the Islamists in northern Mali. However approval for military action to subdue the AQIM and affiliated Islamists is still on hold, even though the resolutions called for “a readiness to respond to Mali’s request for an international military force”.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has backpedaled, stating: “The United Nations was developing a strategy on the Sahel that would look as a whole at issues including security, response to large-scale crises, and the promotion of democratic governance.” African countries fearing the spread of the Islamists into other regions, stated the UN should have supported Mali in April 2012 when they asked for help, to prevent Islamists from taking over a large area of the country.

Meeting with Mali government leaders in Bamako in September, they said that Captain Sanogo was considered a national hero. In meeting with Sanogo he defended his mutinous act saying, the elections scheduled for April 29, 2012 were not going to happen. In addition the political parties believed the election would be rigged by President Toure. Sanogo stated, “Toure was corrupt, and corruption ran deep in his government”. He had also obstructed the military’s ability to fight the Islamists, who were taking root in northern Mali. He related how Malian soldiers had been surrounded for over two months without adequate arms, ammunition and food. Then on January 22, 2012 almost ninety soldiers were slaughtered by Islamists at the Aguel Hoc Military Camp, near the northern town of Kidal. Sanogo said Toure did not send additional reinforcements; hence they could not hold their positions and had to retreat. He was emphatic however: “We were not defeated—we had to withdraw for lack of military support.”

Sanogo was concerned about the elections in 2013, since Dioncounda Traore the interim president wanted to stay on, even though members of the transitional government were not eligible to run in the new election. He reminded me that he stepped aside in April, saying he had no political ambition: “All I have is a new vision for the country”. At the same time he was adamant that he needed to stay close to the transition process, to make sure the elections go forward.

Meeting with Tuareg elders in the Mintao Refugee Camp in Burkina Faso, they told me the Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) were responsible for atrocities in their villages–including rapes, public floggings and amputations. Almost one-third the population of northern Mali fled when the Islamists started to institute the brutal Sharia law. The displaced refugees did not want to stay in the camps any longer, but feared going home since they would be targeted by the Islamists

The U.S. should have helped subdue the AQIM in 2003 when they fled Algeria to Mali’s northern frontier region, which has become a safe haven for al-Qaeda linked Islamists from Mauritania, Nigeria, Niger, Chad, Somalia, and as far away as Pakistan and Afghanistan. U.S. intelligence sources have known that northern Mali was becoming a breeding ground for terrorists. In 2005 the “Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative” training program was launched in Mali, with twelve neighboring countries participating. In 2007 Special Operations Forces carried out additional training with these countries; the U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM) had considered setting up a base there.

Lack of ongoing military support left Mali unprepared to deal with the well-armed and financed Islamists. According to an Examiner.com article, Qatar suspected of supporting al-Qaeda in Mali, the U.S. gives Qatar billions of dollars in military and economic aid. In turn Qatar supports Ansar Dine, AQIM, and Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MOWJA). The article noted, “In the end, when you support a supporter of terrorism, you become a supporter of terrorism yourself”.

The AQIM has also become a destabilizing force in Libya, affiliating with Ansar al-Sharia, having attacked the U.S. consulate in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. Libya is at risk of being taken over by Salafi Islamists–as is Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. We can expect more attacks against the U.S. presence in North Africa and Sahel region.

The recent ousting of Prime Minister Diarra indicates the frustration of Mali’s military, desperately seeking support to fight the Islamists embedded in northern Mali. Both Secretary Clinton and Ambassador Rice continue to press for elections as a prerequisite, in addition to negotiations with the Ansar Dine Islamists, before any military action should be sanctioned. If we are to save Mali, such ‘inaction’ will prove to be devastating. Mali either needs to subdue these radical Islamists, or risk becoming an Islamic state.

Regime change, dominated by Salafi Islamists, will not bring democracy as we envision it. Instead Islamists, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, will end up with control in the North African countries. Ayman al-Zawahiri, the Al-Qaeda leader, and Muslim Brotherhood hardliner, had called for Libyans to move quickly to establish Sharia law. He also called for Algerians “to follow their brothers in Libya and Tunisia to revolt”. In addition, Al-Zawahiri reaffirmed the jihad against the United States.

The U.S. pressed for the passage of UN Resolution 1973 in February 2011, calling for the removal of Muammar Qaddafi from power. Military action commenced one month later on March 19, and by October 20 the Qaddafi regime came to an end– eleven months from start-to-finish. In Mali almost eleven months have passed since the coup in March 2012, and radical Islamists now control almost two-thirds of the country. And military action against the Islamists, to retake the territory, continues to be just talk.

In Libya the U.S. spent millions of dollars on the military incursion, which emboldened Islamists and created a mess in Mali. It is not too late for military action against the radical Islamists in Mali. It is time for the U.S. to take the lead, and spend some of our resources to help free the Malian people from the radical Islamists–before Mali becomes an Islamic state.

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